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EDITORIAL • May 17, 2002

What did the FBI know?

     While Democrats on Capitol Hill were hyperventilating over the fact that a picture of President Bush doing his job on September 11 was auctioned at a Republican Party fund-raiser, a serious national security issue came to the fore: the fact that the administration missed a series of previously undisclosed warnings about the possibility of an upcoming terrorist attack on U.S. soil.
     White House spokesman Ari Fleischer has confirmed that Mr. Bush was told about the possibility of hijackings, but emphasized that such warnings were focused on "hijacking in the traditional sense, but not involving suicide bombers using airplanes as missiles." National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and other senior officials have emphasized that the information, which was included in the president's daily intelligence briefings, lacked specific information on how the attacks were to have been carried out.
     Administration officials say that none of the information available to investigators prior to September 11 could have prevented the attacks. This claim must be viewed with skepticism.
     With the latest revelations, we now know that the information that various government agencies had in their possession prior to September 11 included the following: 1) Osama bin Laden had discussed hijacking a plane; 2) an FBI agent in Phoenix had put out a memorandum urging that the agency investigate Middle Eastern men enrolled in American flight schools to train for terrorist operations. The memo, which mentions bin Laden by name, suggests that sending students to the flight schools could be "the first step in what could be a concerted effort to place Islamic militants in the civil aviation industry around the world as pilots, security guards, or aircraft workers," as the New York Times reported; and 3) In 1994, the Armed Islamic Group, an affiliate of al Qaeda, attempted to hijack and crash an airliner into the Eiffel Tower.
     Perhaps the most important missed opportunity was with Zacarias Moussaoui, who had raised suspicion last summer when he attempted to seek flight training at flight schools in Minnesota and Oklahoma. Mr. Moussaoui, who attracted concern by requesting lessons on how to steer a plane, but not how to take off or land one, was detained on immigration charges. After the FBI learned that he was associated with members of an Algerian terrorist group, FBI agents in Minnesota sought a warrant to open up Mr. Moussaoui's computer hard drive under a 1979 statute called the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). Their request was rejected by lawyers working for the Justice Department. After September 11, when the FBI obtained a warrant to open Mr. Moussaoui's hard drive, they found information on airliners, crop dusters and wind patterns.
     At the very minimum, Americans deserve to know how this country's national security establishment will improve the way it handles such intelligence in order to spare the nation a repeat of September 11.

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